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Before Disney there was FELIX

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

F. - Hello Maggie, My name is Felix.

I. - Hello Felix, nice to meet you. It's an honour to have you here.

F. - And it's a pleasure for me to be interviewed by such a cat lover (I've got informants everywhere).

I. - Felix, There’s a lot of prejudice about black cats. In some European folklore, black cats are considered common companions of witches and bringers of misfortune if they happened to cross your path. How do you deal with that in your career?

F. - In spite of those who have thought badly of black cats all over the centuries and those few who still might do (if any), my name means "happy" in Latin. Did you know that and why I was given this name?

I. - Nope, but I ‘m all ears.

F. - Well, during my long career as an actor I’ve made several generations laugh and smile! I have enchanted, softened, amazed them and, above all, I gave them moments of pure poetry. I am nine years older than Disney’s Mickey Mouse folks and I am considered the world’s first animated film star!

Wow… I must say, I appreciate the modesty of this cat. He is friendly and relaxed. With his round and cheerful face, his huge eyes wide open, for a moment I forget he is an actor. Felix is a naughty cat indeed (he keeps staring at my pen while I ask some questions for my interview and he seems to want to grab it with his paw). He is playful too.

I. - Felix, how old are you?

F. - I will be 102 on November the 9th and I’m still loved all over the world.

Indeed, he was designed in 1917 by the artist Otto Messmer in Pat Sullivan's studios, more than ten years before the birth of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse. He first appeared as 'Master Tom' in …

F. - Thanks God they changed their mind with that name!

…in an animated short titled «Feline Follies», released by Paramount Studios on 9 November 1919 before becoming the star in The Musical Mews and The Adventures of Felix within November of that year.

Leading the way for more animated adventures in the following years, he became the most famous cat in the world. This surreal, clever and ingenious cat had almost immediate success all over the world, reaching a fame equal to that of the great Charlie Chaplin with whom he appeared in the cartoon Felix in Hollywood in 1923.

Felix the Cat with Charlie Chaplin in "Felix in Hollywood", 1923

I. - What was it like shooting a movie with a Hollywood star of the likes of Charlie Chaplin?

F. - Well, Charlie was one of the greatest actors of the XX century, probably the only one capable of successfully overcoming the transition from silent to sound. I always had a lot of laughs when I met him with that bowler hat of his, the black moustache, the oversized trousers and shoes and his unique swaying walk. On set of "Felix in Hollywood" he used to honour me with some gifts: a lot of toys that I loved playing with (especially a robin rag doll which I still own and treasure), and a lot of exquisite fresh caught fish that my housekeeper used to cut in slices as a sashimi dish for dinner.

I. - Sashimi??

F. – Yep, I know, I was too far ahead! Sashimi has become something of a phenomenon in recent years, with sushi restaurants cropping up everywhere but in the 1920s it was almost unknown in western countries. Thanks to my fellow cats it has been imported in the US and the first restaurant ever opened up in New York by my friend Yoshi, a calico cat from Osaka, was always overbooked.

I. – Come on Felix, don’t oversell it.

Let’s get back to your career. You became very popular and started to be used as a mascot for merchandising and branding that made you even more recognisable as a pop culture icon. You were a true Hollywood star!

F. - You could say that Maggie! Furthermore, in the late 1920s, the U.S. Navy's Bombing Squadron Two (VB-2B) adopted a unit insignia consisting of me happily carrying a bomb with a burning fuse, ah ah! They retained the insignia through the 1930s when they became a fighter squadron under the designations VF-6B and, later, VF-3, whose members Edward O'Hare and John Thach became famous naval aviators in World War II!

Lieutenant “Butch” O’Hare in the cockpit of his Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighter. The “Felix the Cat” insignia represents Fighter Squadron 3 (VF-3). The five flags, the ensign of the Imperial Japanese Navy, signify the enemy airplanes destroyed in the action of 20 February 1942. (LIFE Magazine)

I. - But just as you were enjoying your fame and success, the Pat Sullivan Cartoons studio ended up struggling to compete with the arrival of the sound in cinemas in 1927.

F. – This was the case for many Hollywood stars. They rode the wave of success during the silent era but once the sound switched on they were disoriented like fishes out of water or just their voice didn’t work for it.

Macys Thanksgiving day parade, 1927

I. – Many believe you were just overthrown by your colleague Mickey who first appeared on screen in 1928.

F. – Who? The Mouse?? Oh no, no. Believe me, it wasn’t about him. It was just a matter of wrong decisions taken by my agent Pat Sullivan and his Cartoons studio. The guy initially refused to produce new content with sound and by the time that he changed his mind, his company would already be at least a year behind Mickey’s debut in 1928. Then Pat Sullivan sadly passed away, leaving the project unfinished. By the time I spoke my first words on camera, it was too little too late.

I. - Oh, what a pity!

F. – You know, fame it’s not just about silver screen Maggie. Life is made of ups and down and I must confess that at the beginning it was difficult to accept it, especially when you are used to have a crowd of fans waiting out of the door and Felix the Cat posters are everywhere in the country. Maybe it was time for me to explore a new path and I looked at it in a positive way indeed, a chance for me to grow not only as an actor but also as a cat. I just happened to enjoy the simple thing life had to offer to me in that very moment. I travelled a lot, I went out with my friends doing late at night with no alarm clock the next morning, I learned how to paint. I took my time with meditation, some days I just lied on the sofa doing nothing at all.

I. - In short, let's say you just needed to take a rest.

F. - Definitely. However, the best things happen when you don't expect them.

I. - What do you mean?

F. - I well remember It was an ordinary evening and I was toileting lying on the sofa when someone rang the doorbell. I was surprised of it as it was a rainy cold evening and I am not used to receive any kind of visitors from my lazy furry friends during winter time. Anyway, when I put my head out of the cat flap. I saw this big man wearing a grey raincoat with a cigar in his hand holding a ream of paper under his arm saying “Will you let me in or do you think you’ll stare at me this way much longer? It’s cold outside!”. It was Otto Messmer, my real creator, my true friend and my saviour.

I. – What happened then?

F. – That ream of paper was a contract as well as a draft for my next big adventure: comics, written and drawn by Otto for Dell Comics.

Otto Messmer

It goes without saying that it was a succes and a new generation of children became fans of Felix. He was definitely back on track!

F. - I was back on track!

I. - Can you read my mind??

F. - Cats do indeed.

(Mild grin on his face)

I. - So, the 1940s were the years of the comics ...

F. – That’s right. And the 1950s was the time when I, Felix the Cat, made my come back on the screen. After Otto's (Messmer) retirement in 1954 his assistant Joe Orilolo took over the work on the comic books and decided to create a television show with a series of episodes based around my character.

By the end of the 50s Joe Oriolo, the son of Pat, produced 264 episodes of the TV show. His character was loved not only by children, but also adults had fun as well. The entire series of cartoons are still being shown around the world today.

I. - Felix, what's the secret that makes your character immortal?

F. - I'm pretty sure Pat and Otto, my beloved fathers, would say "because Felix The Cat lives in a real world and not a fantasy one; his everyday life is made up of the little things and circumstances, exactly like us all humans, which are not so extraordinary. Yet the solutions that Felix finds to overcome the obstacles he encounters are extraordinary indeed! For example, you can see him grabbing a quarter of the moon turning it into a cradle for a baby crying out loud; or we can see him taking two question marks placed on the balloons on his head and use them as skis; or using a pan as a banjo to play jazz ... He always find a solution but it often comes from a world of imagination, so sweet and inventive, right? Therefore, in order for such things to happen we need to be passionate and optimistic like Felix do."

I. - We need to be more optimistic in life, especially these days.

Felix was revolutionary in animation not merely for his charisma and inventiveness, but also for the way in which he was drawn. We don't know what could happen next with Felix the Cat, I am sure there will always be an animator who will catch the essence of this cat and turn it into new whimsical adventures that will make us laugh and smile!

F. - Thank you very much Felix, I appreciate your time and kindness.

And once again, I forget he is just a cat. He jumped on my legs, like only felines ca do, and he starts kneading on me. Then I started stroking the head. As a result, he purrs. A friendship is born.


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